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Celebrity guest editing - who needs skillz?

When someone is named Editor at a newspaper or magazine, they've worked hard to prove their mettle. Often that person has worked at the same (or a rival) publication as a reporter, climbing the ranks perhaps to columnist or associate editor, proving competence in writing, copy-editing and making decisions concerning what's newsworthy. For the hard-working journalist, there are few shortcuts – save perhaps receiving a patronage editorship or starting one's own publication and appointing oneself top dog.

Except wait! I'm wrong. There is another route, one that sadly never occurred to me as I slowly built my journalism career over the past 20 years. If you achieve celebrity in another genre, say acting or music, you can satellite in and be named editor with no training, bypassing the tedious years of building by-lines, pitching and proving yourself in story meetings.

I first heard of this phenomenon back in 1998 when Gwyneth Paltrow was asked to guest edit an issue of Marie Claire magazine. It struck me as odd at the time, given I was then struggling as associate editor at a pharmacy publication while her guest editorship seemed mainly to involve being dropped on a deserted, tropical island – gasp, by herself – for a weekend of deep thoughts. It didn't jibe with the work I was doing plodding through 20,000 words of copy per issue or acquiring myopia reading proofs with a magnifying glass to make sure each comma was in the right place.

In recent years we've seen Bono guest edit the Globe and Mail's Africa edition, Lada Gaga guest edit Metro newspapers, and now Ashton Kutcher temporarily at the helm of Details. I'm not saying these people don't have skills. Hell, Bono and Gaga can obviously write music and draw attention to important issues like HIV/AIDs and gay marriage. And Ashton Kutcher is a world-class punker, has a big Twitter following and is the new Charlie Sheen (clearly he's winnnnnnning). But what qualifies them to lead a print publication? What about the actual editors on staff – do they take the day off or fill in for Kutcher on the set of Two-and-a-Half Men? Or maybe they take on a guest role in a completely unrelated profession, perhaps policing, road construction or dental hygiene? Really, couldn't we all just swap jobs and move around for fun every now and again? I'm sure the woman awaiting a c-section would be cool with me guesting as her ob/gyn that day.

I'm starting to appreciate how fashion designers who've actually studied, apprenticed and worked their fingers to the bone establishing themselves must feel when celebrities whip off their 'own' clothing line seemingly on a whim.  Presuming anyone can do the job of editor trivializes the job and the actual skills it requires.

The just deserts in this is that Kutcher is in trouble for slogging his own products while guest editing Details ( Apparently he failed to disclose that he invests in many of the companies profiled in what is called the Social Media Issue. Whoops! You're not allowed to do that? Maybe if he'd had some actual training or experience in journalism he'd better understand the rules.

Let's stop this nonsense and leave the editing to editors.

Reader Comments (5)

As always Alison - well said! With someone like Kutcher who is so actively involved in SM companies as an angel investor, dropping him in as a chief IDEA officer for an edition makes great sense. Let him give his style & flair for a special edition. Let him be artsy and entertaining, even let him make editorial commentary. But don't hand over the reins. I have guest speakers in my classes all the time; they get to speak from their perspective and give some of their opinions, but I maintain control over the class, course and curriculum.

August 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Murray

I love this. Well said indeed. Then there's Celebrities who write childrens' books. They've got "Platform" ---and the book sells. Some are good. Some...ew. Not fair --but keep doing what you do. The Work matters.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSHEREE

Great post, Alison! I was thinking the same as you, Sheree, about all the celebrities writing children's books these days!

August 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJo Ann Yhard

Hi Alison,
Great post! I feel the same way about "citizen journalists" which is what I heard a PR person call bloggers recently. It made me gasp. Just because someone throws up a blog and starts posting their opinion it doesn't make them a journalist. It should be called what it speech! Which is fantastic. That's not to say that there aren't some awesome bloggers out there who have the background and training to write well researched, insightful, pieces but I wish people would apply the "journalist" or "editor" tags only to the professionals who deserve it.


August 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnne O'Connell

Thank you William, Sheree, JoAnn and Anne, for pushing this conversation a little further. I don't wish to muzzle anyone who wants to stretch and try new things. I'm all for giving audiences input into journalistic and creative processes...just not for giving them the reins and meaningless titles. I love that you mention celebrity-authors and citizen journalists, both excellent extensions of this same phenomenon.

August 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlison DeLory

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